In this in-depth field review, we are going to have a look at the Nikon telezoom DX lens the Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR, which was launched in August of 2016. This is one of the three existing DX lenses featuring the new AF-P abbreviation, along with the Nikkor 18-55mm (VR and non-VR versions) and the new Nikkor 10-20mm VR wide-angle lens. AF-P stands for a new piece of technology – a pulsing / stepping focusing motor.
This product hardly caused any excitement, as it is an all-plastic lens designed primarily for entry-level DSLRs. Nikkor 70-300mm DX VR AF-P lens is currently sold in many popular sets with DSLR bodies such as D5600, D3400 and D7200. In the past, kit lenses were notorious for their low build quality and rather mediocre optical performance. Nikon, however, managed to produce quite a few decent basic DX zoom lenses (such as the 55-300mm DX VR and 18-55 DX VR) that yield very good performance / price ratio. While many enthusiast photographers call for dedicated DX primes, Nikon decided to invest its resources into even more lightweight and compact DX zooms, such as the new 70-300mm DX VR AF-P lens. How does this lens with new design fare in a real-life test? Let’s take a look.
Important notice: the AF-P line is only compatible with the latest Nikon DSLR bodies. It means the number of cameras usable with the lens is limited.
This is how Nikon USA specifies compatibility by grouping cameras in three subsets:
- Fully compatible models: Even for compatible cameras, firmware update may be required. Fully compatible models are: D7500, D5600, D5500, D5300, D3400, D3300, D500 and later models
- Compatible models with limited functions: D5, D810 series, Df, D750, D7200, D7100, D5200, Nikon 1 series with the FT1
- Incompatible models: D4 series, D3 series, D2 series, D1 series, D800 series, D700, D610, D600, D300 series, D200, D100, D7000, D5100, D5000, D90, D80, D70 series, D3200, D3100, D3000, D60, D50, D40 series, film cameras
I have tested this lens on my old Nikon DSLR D7000 (featured by Nikon as an incompatible model) and it indeed does not work. Since the focusing is fully electronic, you cannot even use the manual focusing. The picture in the viewfinder stays blurred all the time, no matter how you turn the focus ring. Stay away from this lens if you have an old body and plan to stick with it.
To find out more about the lens, please check out the Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR page of our lens database.
2) Lens Handling and Features
The Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P is a lightweight, small, and ultra-portable tele-zoom lens, which feels great in your hands and balances well with all crop sensor DSLRs (DX format). The VR version weights as little as 415 grams (14.7 oz), the non-VR version is slightly lighter (by some 10g). Such low weight is due to its all-plastic design, including a plastic mount. I personally have no issue with plastic mounts, Nikon started using them even in some higher priced lenses:
The lens has a total of 14 elements in 10 groups with one extra-low dispersion element. There is no aspherical element.
The 4.3x zoom of this 70-300mm lens is a nice range, offering far reach on DX bodies (roughly equivalent to 450mm in field of view on a full-frame camera). The direct DX predecessor of this lens offered even a wider range by having 55mm on the short end, which I would personally prefer, but I understand that such a construction calls for more optical compromises that negatively affect the image quality.
The zoom ring is very large, occupying most of the lens barrel, which makes it easy to zoom in and out with your left hand, while holding the camera with your right hand. The ring is perfectly damped with just the right amount of resistance and zoom creep is not an issue.
At the front, a relatively thin focus ring is placed – yet it due to a very compact size, the ring placement at the very front still keeps the operation very easy.
Nikon’s “P” series of NIKKOR lenses use stepping motors to “focus smoother and quieter than previous drive systems. This quiet drive system makes the lenses ideal for use when shooting video.” (quotation from Nikon Press-release). See section 4 where I write how the lens fares in real-life shooting.
Strikingly, the AF-P line of lenses, including this 70-300mm tele-zoom, has no mechanical switches (VR or AF/MF). The absence of AF/MF switch is not a big deal, since the lens features a constant manual override option, which comes as a new feature. On older DX kit lenses, you had to first switch to “M mode on the lens to be able to rotate the front of the lens barrel, where the focus ring is located. This lens allows you to override autofocus by simply rotating the focus ring – any time. I find this very handy and practical.
The VR switch absence is more puzzling though, as you must go into your camera internal set-up menu to switch VR functionality on or off. What’s more, not all compatible cameras have this feature (such as my D7100). See more information in section 5.
This lens can be paired with a B-77 bayonet lens hood, but it is not included in the price (unlike with the previous version of 55-300mm). You must purchase it separately for 30 USD.
Since it is a variable aperture lens, the focal length on it changes as you zoom in from f/4.5 to f/6.3 on the long end:
- 70mm – f/4.5
- 72mm – f/4.8
- 150mm – f/5
- 180mm – f/5.3
- 240mm – f/6
- 270mm – f/6.3
- 300mm – f/6.3
Compared to the previous Nikon 55-300mm DX VR, and the even the older 70-300mm VR, this new DX AF-P version offers a slower aperture at 300mm – f/6.3 instead of the more usual f/5.6. While at first it may seem as a big change, it is actually only 1/3 EV slower, which to me is acceptable if focusing and optical performance are OK. So how are they?
3) Focus Acquisition Speed and Accuracy
The lens focuses silently, accurately and quite reliably. Given the price and construction, this is a very positive surprise. Nikon’s press release promising “quieter and smoother to autofocus than an AF-S lens, making these lenses ideal when shooting video with a DSLR” did not lie.
The lens acquires focus very fast and with no noise what so ever. None of my DX lenses focuses near this fast. Strikingly, there is almost a complete silence while the stepping motor is focusing. That is quite unusual if you are used to AF-S (silent ultra-wave motor technology) which emits some high pitch sound while focusing. I even had to refocus many time simply because I could not believe the lens already nailed it. And yet it did. The AF performance is impressive and feels quite like the professional 70-200mm f/4 lens, I even guess this lens is faster.
The accuracy does not suffer even at the long end (at 300mm), which was an issue with the older 55-300mm lens. I could get very good results in the AF-C mode on an entry-level D5300 camera. I was shooting sportsmen moving relatively quickly towards me and most of the images were sharp. When focusing in low-light, the lens yields a surprisingly good ratio of in-focus shots.
Manual override is a great feature to have in case you are shooting in difficult conditions (against the sun) and the lens is hunting. You can then help the lens to “find” the right range and make it snap into focus.
Despite the slow aperture (f/6.3 at 300mm), this is still a usable lens indoor / low-light photography:
In my field tests, I hardly did shoot any videos, I have tried only a few times to see how it compares to other lenses. Concretely speaking, I compared the focusing performance of the 70-300 AF-P lens with the semi-professional Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR lens and the AF-P was way quicker.
4) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
When it comes to sharpness, this lens is quite outstanding. I cannot offer any particular performance charts / graphs, but judging from over 2,000 images taken in various conditions, I can say the following:
At 70mm, the sharpness both in the center and the corners is good wide open at f/4.5, very good at f/5.6, and excellent from f/8 and smaller. The same holds for other focal lengths up to 200mm. Central sharpness is excellent right from the widest aperture, peaking always between f/8-f/11. The corners are only a tad softer.
Surprisingly, the performance does not drop even at 300mm, and the lens yields great results even fully open at f/6.3 with very good corner performance. I am impressed!
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
When buying this lens, be aware that there are two versions of this lens: a VR and a non-VR (slightly cheaper) version. I do not really get the point of producing a non-VR version, but perhaps videographers do not need VR with some professional steady-cam equipment? If you have any idea regarding the purpose of such a lens, let me know in the comments section below please.
Similarly, even if you buy the stabilized version, do not be surprised that the VR switch is missing on this lens. With the fully compatible bodies (see Compatibility section), VR function can be turned on / off through in-camera menu. Compared to the 70-300mm VR lens, it has no VR modes like “Normal” and “Active”, which I personally do not miss, since I hardly ever change VR from Normal to Active.
I was shooting with 70-300mm hand-held most of the time and used a tripod only for some night cityscapes in Athens. Thanks to vibration reduction, I was able to shoot at slow shutter speeds and still get sharp images of non-moving subjects. The performance was not 100% consistent though – sometimes slow shutter speeds around 1/60 resulted in sharp images, sometimes they did not. While VR is surely a great feature to have, one must pay attention to their hand-holding technique anyway.
One issue I had repeatedly, was when I tried to do panning – then, no matter what shutter speed I used (ranging from 1/50 to 1/500), the images were always a tad blurry, which I assume might have to do with VR not being able to handle panning.
Overall, the Vibration Reduction (VR) system in this lens works rather well, although I am not as excited as some other photographers who reviewed this lens. When I held the camera properly, I could get sharp images at 300mm at 1/40 sec (roughly 4EV advantage thanks to VR).
The partly compatible bodies, such as the Nikon D7100 do not allow disabling of VR when shooting on a tripod. I realized, however, that having the VR on while shooting longer exposures was not a problem and did not result in blurry images, as I would normally expect (this was the case with other stabilized AF-S lenses, such as the 55-300mm, which produce slightly blurry images when VR is on while shooting off a tripod).
The quality of bokeh this lens produces is (subjectively) good, not entirely smooth, but that cannot be expected. I did not test it next to wide aperture lenses, since such a test makes relatively little sense, but I find the bokeh better than on the Nikkor 55-300mm:
Vignetting appears throughout all focal lengths, the longer the length the more vignetting you will see. Stopping down the lens to f/8 helps a lot, and at f/14 light fall-off finally disappears. Not a perfect result. Vignetting can be, however, easily corrected in most of the post-processing software programs.
Here is an example of vignetting widen open at f/8 and at F/14 @70mm @135mm @ 200mm and @300mm respectively – I increased the contrast by 100% in Lightroom so that the results are more visible (so this is not a realistic reproduction):
8) Ghosting and Flare
This little lens does a great job in dealing with direct light. Even when I tried to shoot directly into the sun, I could not really get any nasty ghosting or flare to appear in my images. What is even better, and quite pleasingly surprising, I could not even witness any significant loss of micro-contrast of the lens when the sun reached the front element of the lens (I did not have the hood available). To be honest, I cannot really give a recommendation to buy the extra non-supplied hood – I don’t think most photographers will be needing it. If you are seeing too much flare and you are using a filter (clear, UV, etc.), try removing the filter to see if the effect goes away. If it does, then you probably have a low-quality filter that should be disposed of.
Here is the worst case of ghosting and flare I could produce, with the sun right above the frame:
9) Chromatic Aberration
The Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P has a very controlled amount of chromatic aberration (CA) in the center of the frame (and bit less in the corners), due to the ED glass elements used as part of the optical design. I did not notice much lateral CA at the short focal lengths (just a tad in the corners), but did get some at the long end between 200mm and 300mm across the frame:
It is not bad by any means and it is relatively easy to fix in Lightroom and Photoshop – certainly good enough for a consumer lens of this class.
Distortion is controlled well at the short focal lengths, with a very slight amount of pincushion distortion at the middle and long ranges. All the cameras on which it focuses properly can correct this distortion automatically – just make sure you have the newest firmware in your camera.
Nikon released the new DX 70-300mm VR AF-P lens as an update to the existing 55-200mm and 55-300 DX lenses. Nikon’s engineering team did a great job in giving photographers a very good tool with several strong features: the lens is lightweight and it focuses fast – silently and reliably. Moreover, the lens features an optimized optical formula that produces very sharp photos, even when shooting wide open at the longest end of the zoom range (300mm). This lens basically obsoletes the previous 55-200mm and 55-300mm lenses in all aspects (except the limited range at the wide end) and compares favorably against other similar lenses such as the Nikon 70-300mm VR.
The biggest drawback in my opinion is its potential incompatibility with older cameras and lack of switches on the lens, making it rather painful to turn certain features on and off. In addition, the smaller maximum aperture at 300mm is also a bit limiting, although one could argue that the slower speed is compensated by the great lens sharpness. This lens is certainly not a low-light beast, but thanks to the excellent AF-P focusing mechanism, it is certainly possible to shoot fast action in daylight conditions. Price, without a doubt, is another key advantage – this lens only costs around $399, which is not a bad price for a telephoto zoom that offers so much performance.
Overall, I am very impressed with this lens – I realized that I started using this lens even more often on my DX camera than my trusty Nikkor 70-200 f/4 VR, which is an amazing lens on its own (and very sharp). Compact size and lightweight construction also matters a great deal to me – sometimes even more than sharpness when traveling and packing light.
12) More Image Samples
Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G DX VR AF-P
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating